I decided that I was a drummer well before I had any drums. Indeed, when I was in fourth grade and some of us were invited to start doing instrumental music, I was given a choice between clarinet and trombone. “I’d like to play drums,” I said.
“Flutes and drums are a dime a dozen,” the teacher said. “We need trombones and clarinets.” So that’s how I wound up as a trombonist from fourth through ninth grades. I wasn’t especially interested in the instrument, and wasn’t motivated enough to practice much, and not surprisingly, I wasn’t very good at all.
Meanwhile, I discovered the Beatles that year, courtesy of my friend Michael Dearing who gave me the lyrics to “I Am the Walrus.” They were odd enough to fascinate me. And naturally, I wanted to do rock and roll at that point. As it happened, my friends were learning stringed instruments — Dearing was learning bass and my friend Carl picked up the guitar. So again, I decided I wanted to be a drummer. I played on borrowed gear for the next few years, getting my own kit in eighth grade after I had moved to Kentucky. I soldiered on with the trombone for another year, but bailed out before I could be drafted into marching band. I was told that there were “initiations” in marching band, and the idea of being hazed for the opportunity to wear an ill fitting uniform and walk where I was told — all while playing an instrument I didn’t particularly like — seemed like a colossally dumb way to spend part of high school. And that’s pretty much how I became a rock musician.
But one plus from my years as last-chair trombonist was that I learned to read bass clef — I picked up treble clef a little later, from the dozen or so piano lessons I took in high school. But I’m still stronger at reading bass, which suits my vocal range as well.
Where I’m going with all this is that during my second year at Transylvania U, I brought my kit to campus. There were practice rooms in the women’s dorm, but while they were fine for piano or similar instruments, I only had to play a few times before I was told I had to relocate my gear. So I spoke to one of the music professors, and asked if I could keep my set in the band room. He said that was okay with him, but then he said that the college wind ensemble needed another percussionist. If I was willing to join up, he’d make sure I got individual lessons and a place for my gear. Seemed like a bargain to me. Indeed, it was, as I wound up putting a band together, and we practiced over there on nights and weekends, even if we never gigged beyond a couple of college talent shows. (We had offers, but alas, I got bounced from Transy before they reached fruition.)
I showed up for my first rehearsal, and discovered to my delight that the timpani parts were written in bass clef, and that the only other percussionist who could read melodic charts was already playing mallets (xylophone, bells, vibes, etc.). So I became the timpanist for the Wind Ensemble, playing parts in pieces like Holst’s “Marching Song” and a suite of pieces by Tielman Susato.
I enjoyed it quite a bit, but it became apparent that even in this “legit” gig, I was a rock and roller at heart. For one thing, I set the timps up “backwards”, with the higher-pitched drums to my left, moving clockwise as the pitches descended. Apparently standard style is to set them up like a piano keyboard, with the pitches rising from left to right. But because I’m a right-handed drum set player, I was used to turning to my right to find lower tones, so it made sense to me to reverse that. (I’m told that apparently German timpanists also set them up as I do, but I can’t prove that.)
But the big thing… well, it wasn’t intentional. Like a lot of drummers, I can be fidgety. (Indeed, that’s probably why that fourth grade band director was right. Give the studious kids horns. Give the hyperactive wood shop dropouts sticks.) If I have a pair of sticks in my hands, I’ll twirl them. I don’t think about it — it’s just something I do to keep my hands busy. And admittedly, doing the rock and roll thing, a certain degree of showmanship was and is expected. I’ve never reached the levels of someone like Steve “The Mad Drummer” Moore or Ken Mary, but when you’re on stage, well, you’re on stage. It becomes second nature.
So fast forward to the Fall Concert on Parents’ Weekend at Transy. I had to rent a tux for the gig — or more to the point, my folks had to rent one for me, which strained our family’s already tight budget. I’m guessing they ate a lot of beans and cornbread that month. But they did get to see me wear it.
And that’s a shame because it doesn’t really matter how well or poorly I’m dressed — I’m gonna be scruffy looking. My hair was maybe just past collar length, managing to radiate uncoolness to conservatives and metalheads alike. My demeanor was (and likely remains) similarly dorky — slouchy (because I’m tall) and awkward (because I’m well, awkward.) Meanwhile, we’re in the college’s auditorium to do our thing. As my dad said later, “This was clearly meant to be just too too.”
We open with the abovementioned Susato. I play my roll, come to the rest… and twirl my mallets. Honestly — I wasn’t thinking about it, but I had come to an upstroke, the momentum from the rebound already had the head of the stick moving — it would have felt odd in my hands not to do it. And I guess I did it at a couple of other points in the pieces we played. Not a lot — as I said, it wasn’t something I was doing deliberately — but well, enough.
I don’t know if the director regretted making that offer to me afterward, but he was cool about it, which was nice. And later, when we did a concert with some of the players from the Lexington Symphony, I introduced myself to one of the percussionists, and he said, “Right — you’re the one who twirls.”
I do know that my folks enjoyed it. Dad said they had sort of dreaded the whole business, fearing it would be either drearily stuffy or stuffily dreary. “It needed a little rock and roll,” he said. My friend William was in the ensemble as well, and his dad spoke to me after the show as well. “It would have been a bargain at twice the price,” he said. Of course, it was a free concert.
But what led me to recall all this on this particular evening was a piece that ran in The Hard Times, a sort of punk and metal version of The Onion. Read the article, and you’ll understand.